A decade ago, Charleston County was embroiled in an ugly fight over rural land use and planning. At issue was the county’s Unified Development Ordinance, designed to protect unincorporated rural land in Charleston County.
People who had lived for generations on barrier islands and rural areas of the South Santee were not prepared to have bureaucrats telling them how they could use their land. In a populist uprising that looked like a dress rehearsal for the Teabagger movement, property rights extremists held rallies, filled churches and public halls, and booed down UDO proponents. Many rural landowners could not see that planning and zoning protected their interests, just as they do in urban areas, where zoning and other regulations are necessities of modern life.
The short-lived movement spawned a local folk hero, Joey Douan, who invoked God and the Constitution in his fight to stop the “stealing” of private land by bureaucrats and environmentalists.
“We’re not going to sit back and let them steal our land from our children and our descendants,” he told a church full of angry landowners in 2001.
Like the Teabagger movement, the local crusade was well financed by corporate money, in this case development and real estate interests. And, like the Teabagger movement, it relied on fear and misinformation.
“It’s a shame that some people for business gain would mislead and scare innocent people into thinking the county government is trying to steal their land,” former Charleston County Councilman Leon Stavrinakis said.
The UDO eventually passed a council vote and withstood court challenges. Today it provides a blueprint for orderly, sustainable growth in rural Charleston County.
The battles South Carolinians fight in the name of property rights, personal freedom, and lower taxes have become legend. The result of this radical individualism is that South Carolina lags behind most of the nation in land-use planning, mass transit, recycling, clean air and water standards, and other public policies that make life better for all. But making life better for all is not on some people’s agendas.
We got a glimpse of this radical mindset a few months ago, when crowds of angry residents packed Charleston City Council chambers to protest the Green Committee’s recommendations.
For more than two years, the Green Committee had been putting together a list of recommendations to make the city more workable and more sustainable. These include such common-sense measures as requiring new buildings in the city to meet higher energy-efficiency standards and requiring residences and businesses to recycle more solid waste.
The Green Committee goals are all reasonable, and many of them have been implemented in cities across the country. Charleston is not the guinea pig in some social experiment.
But when the Green Committee’s recommendations came up for vote last year before city council, opponents came out in droves, and there was much grousing about personal freedom, property rights, and the Constitution. The group had a distinctly Teabagger look about them.
Nina Fair saw the anti-green protesters and was shocked. Fair is a local architect who specializes in environmental and sustainable design and works on Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects. “In my mind, it’s the only way to go,” she said.
Imagine her surprise at the sight of angry citizens storming City Hall and virtually accusing her of stealing their property and their human rights. She admits she was politically naïve, but then she did not know that she was getting into politics when she volunteered to work on the city Green Plan. “I could not believe some people would hate the aspects of the Green Plan so much,” she said.
Fair recently visited Portland, Ore., and was amazed at the difference 3,000 miles and a better attitude can make. Portland has free mass transit in the inner city; you pay on the honor system as you go out from the center of the city. Every downtown street has a bike lane. There are recycling bins on the streets and multi-section bins in all public buildings.
“That’s what was so refreshing about the trip out west,” she said. “There obviously had been widespread buy-in to those principles of sustainability.”
As a South Carolina native, Fair knows what South Carolina’s problem is. She has seen it all her life. But it still hurts.
“As a committee member, I must hope that the committee will continue to work for the common good,” she said. “As an individual, it is really frustrating to see this outrage over things that are necessary for the common good.”
Attitudes change slowly, and I see progress on many fronts. But too many South Carolinians are trapped in the zero-sum game of thinking that personal freedom and the common good cannot exist side by side.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.